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Giant in the Shadows

The Life of Robert T. Lincoln

Jason Emerson

Publication Year: 2012

Although he was Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s oldest and last surviving son, the details of Robert T. Lincoln’s life are misunderstood by some and unknown to many others. Nearly half a century after the last biography about Abraham Lincoln’s son was published, historian and author Jason Emerson illuminates the life of this remarkable man and his achievements in Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln. Emerson, after nearly ten years of research, draws upon previously unavailable materials to offer the first truly definitive biography of the famous lawyer, businessman, and statesman who, much more than merely the son of America’s most famous president, made his own indelible mark on one of the most progressive and dynamic eras in United States history.

Born in a boardinghouse but passing his last days at ease on a lavish country estate, Robert Lincoln played many roles during his lifetime. As a president’s son, a Union soldier, an ambassador to Great Britain, and a U.S. secretary of war, Lincoln was indisputably a titan of his age. Much like his father, he became one of the nation’s most respected and influential men, building a successful law practice in the city of Chicago, serving shrewdly as president of the Pullman Car Company, and at one time even being considered as a candidate for the U.S. presidency.

Along the way he bore witness to some of the most dramatic moments in America’s history, including Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; the advent of the railroad, telephone, electrical, and automobile industries; the circumstances surrounding the assassinations of three presidents of the United States; and the momentous presidential election of 1912. Giant in the Shadows also reveals Robert T. Lincoln’s complex relationships with his famous parents and includes previously unpublished insights into their personalities. Emerson reveals new details about Robert’s role as his father’s confidant during the brutal years of the Civil War and his reaction to his father’s murder; his prosecution of the thieves who attempted to steal his father’s body in 1876 and the extraordinary measures he took to ensure it would never happen again; as well as details about the painful decision to have his mother committed to a mental facility. In addition Emerson explores the relationship between Robert and his children, and exposes the actual story of his stewardship of the Lincoln legacy—including what he and his wife really destroyed and what was preserved. Emerson also delves into the true reason Robert is not buried in the Lincoln tomb in Springfield but instead was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Meticulously researched, full of never-before-seen photographs and new insight into historical events, Giant in the Shadows is the missing chapter of the Lincoln family story. Emerson’s riveting work is more than simply a biography; it is a tale of American achievement in the Gilded Age and the endurance of the Lincoln legacy.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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Title Page

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pp. vii


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiv

Any author who spends nearly a decade traveling across the country, visiting and researching in numerous archives, museums, and historic sites, speaking to countless groups, meeting scores of interesting and helpful people, and ultimately creating a biographical tome...

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pp. 1-4

In 1888, Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving child of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, was in serious danger of becoming president of the United States. This is not idle speculation, for “danger” is exactly what Robert Lincoln considered it to be...

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1. "I Was Born in the Globe Tavern"

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pp. 5-19

The town of Springfield, just west of the geographic center of the state of Illinois, was a pristine, untilled, lonely prairie in the early nineteenth century. It was set within the midst of nine hundred square miles of Sangamon County, on part of territory originally...

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2. "Is Bicarb a Swear Word?"

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pp. 20-32

By the time the Lincoln family resumed occupancy of its house on the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets in April 1849, Robert was nearly six years old. He returned to life in a house lit by candles and heated by fireplaces, where water was pumped from...

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3. "The Most Profitable [Year] of My Life"

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pp. 33-47

An educated mind was an important achievement in antebellum America, but it was especially so for the oldest son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Both Lincolns had great intellects and loved reading, writing, and discussing current events...

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4. "Robert Lincoln Has Been Dubbed the Prince of Rails!"

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pp. 48-63

During the hiatus between leaving Phillips Exeter Academy and entering Harvard, Robert did not return home to Springfield. Instead, he spent the summer of 1860 in Exeter, presumably with friends. In June, his mother wrote a friend that after Robert’s absence of...

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5. "He Is Only Mr. Robert Lincoln, of Cambridge"

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pp. 64-88

Back at Harvard, Robert—known to friends as Bob—returned to his boarding room and roommate Frederick P. Anderson and easily settled back into college life. His second-term classes kept him studying Greek, Latin, mathematics, and composition...

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6. "A Very Dreadful Night"

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pp. 89-105

Robert Lincoln began law school in 1864 as his father sought reelection to the presidency. No records survive to indicate young Lincoln’s prowess as a law student, his feelings about being at Harvard, or his thoughts or actions supporting a second term in office for his...

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7. "I Feel Utterly without Spirit or Courage"

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pp. 106-121

One witness to the death of President Abraham Lincoln characterized the grieving twenty-one-year-old Robert at the time as “only a boy, for all his shoulder straps.”1 Whether a correct statement or not, there is no doubt that Robert found himself in a new and overwhelming...

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8. "One of the Most Promising Young Men of the West"

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pp. 122-136

An old adage says that men are attracted to women who remind them of their mothers. The possibility of such attraction in regards to Robert Lincoln is an interesting one. Robert and his mother had a very close relationship, and, as such, he acquired many of her likes...

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9. "I Am Likely to Have a Good Deal of Trouble"

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pp. 137-151

In October 1867, Robert wrote his fiancée Mary Harlan that he believed his mother was “sane on all subjects but one”—money. Ever since he was a child, he had witnessed his mother’s love for shopping—especially during the war years when he shopped with her...

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10. "I Am in Better Shape Than Most"

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pp. 152-168

Tad Lincoln had grown up much since his carefree days as the ten-year-old tyrant of the White House. The assassination, and his position as his mother’s emotional support, had subdued him considerably. During the nearly three years in which Tad and his mother...

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11. "I Have Done My Duty as I Best Know"

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pp. 169-189

In 1879, four years after having his mother declared insane, Robert Lincoln wrote, “If I could have foreseen my own experience in the matter, no consideration would have induced me to go through with it, the ordinary troubles and distresses of life are enough without such as...

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12. "I Could Have Stopped This Scheme with Little Trouble"

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pp. 190-203

By late October 1876, thirty-three-year-old Robert Lincoln’s life was returning to normal after an eventful and not entirely pleasant year. His travails with his mother had recently ended, and she had only weeks before sailed for Europe...

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13. "I Don't Want to Be Minister to England or Anywhere Else"

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pp. 204-219

For a man with no interest in pursuing political jobs, Robert Lincoln lived a remarkable life of public service. There were two main reasons for this. First, citizens and politicians all were exuberant at the idea of the son of Abraham Lincoln entering...

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14. "How Many Hours of Sorrow I Have Passed in This Town"

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pp. 220-234

Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln entered into his new position with goodwill and high expectations from the public but a nagging anxiety and self-doubt from himself. Could he perform his job to his own high standards, standards influenced by his father’s legacy...

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15. "The Best Secretary of War since Jefferson Davis"

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pp. 235-252

When he assumed the presidency in September 1881, Chester A. Arthur had no experience in national politics and absolutely no desire to be president of the United States. He was a part of New York State machine politics, a loyal partisan supporter of powerful...

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16. "I Am Not a Candidate"

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pp. 253-264

The year 1884 was a presidential election year, and just as they do in the twenty-first century, potential candidates began jockeying for the nomination as soon as the previous election had ended—especially after the death of President Garfield. The leading...

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17. "I Expect Only the Greatest Satisfaction"

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pp. 265-281

Abraham Lincoln supposedly disliked reading history, especially biography, because he felt such works lavished praise on their subjects and suppressed imperfections. They “commemorate a lie and cheat posterity out of the truth,” he purportedly said...

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18. "I Don't Want to Be Nobody nor Nothink except a Chicago Shyster"

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pp. 282-300

Ex–Secretary of War Lincoln and his family returned to Chicago in May 1885 to resume the private life that had been put on hiatus in 1881. They did not return to their old house on Wabash Avenue (which Robert continued...

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19. "As Much a Man of Destiny as His Lamented Father"

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pp. 301-319

Four months after the presidential election in November 1888, attorney Robert T. Lincoln was busy at work in his law office in the Honoré Building, Dearborn Street, in downtown Chicago. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune came calling for an interview...

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20. "Minister Lincoln Was Quietness Personified"

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pp. 320-334

John Hay once wrote of his friend Robert Lincoln, “He is not a man to give way to misfortune, however sorely tried.”1 Robert had proven that statement correct time and again in his forty-six years, such as during the deaths of his brothers and father...

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21. "What Would His Father Say?"

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pp. 335-351

When forty-nine-year-old Robert returned to America from Great Britain in May 1893, he did not return to any type of work immediately but allowed himself a lengthy vacation. He did this not only for a rest after his diplomatic work but he also was reluctant...

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22. "I Am Now a Vermont Farmer"

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pp. 352-371

On the evening of February 15, 1898, the USS Maine, a second-class naval battleship stationed in Havana harbor, suddenly exploded, killing nearly three-quarters of the three-hundred-man crew. The ship had been sent to Cuba only three weeks previous to protect American...

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23. "My Filial Gratitude Cannot Find Adequate Expression"

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pp. 372-388

Today, Abraham Lincoln generally is considered by laypeople and scholars alike to be the greatest president in American history. But this was not always so. George Washington, the “father of the country,” was universally held to be the greatest for more than one hundred...

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24. "I Am Now Enjoying Life"

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pp. 389-404

The 1909 centennial events took a physical as well as emotional toll on Robert Lincoln, as his dizzy spell at Hodgenville showed. But in general, and not unusual for his age, Robert’s health declined with every passing year. His major issue was anxiety...

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25. "He Simply Went to Sleep"

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pp. 405-415

May 30, 1922, was a warm and sunny spring day in Washington as fifty thousand people crowded the National Mall from the steps of the Lincoln memorial to the mile-distant base of the Washington Monument. This throng of citizens represented an incalculable...

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Epilogue: "His Own Place in the Sun"

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pp. 416-421

For Robert Lincoln’s entire adult life, he intended his final resting place to be with his family in the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. As he wrote to the head of the National Lincoln Monument Association in 1890, while arranging for burial...


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pp. 425-551


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pp. 553-584


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pp. 585-600

Author Biography

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pp. 601

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809390717
E-ISBN-10: 080939071X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809330553
Print-ISBN-10: 0809330555

Page Count: 752
Illustrations: 24 B/w halftones, 4 line drawings
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Lawyers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Lincoln, Robert Todd, 1843-1926.
  • Children of presidents -- United States -- Biography.
  • Ambassadors -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1865-1933.
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